Souls of Mischief celebrate a classic record with surprises and new concepts

by Ryan Snyder

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For better or worse, there was no more diverse hip-hop scene in America between the late ’80s and early ’90s than that in the Bay Area. Whereas MC Hammer was Oakland’s illegitimate envoy the to mainstream, Too Short was entrenched as the thug king of the underground with Mac Dre and E-40 as the heirs apparent; 2Pac ruled everything above after breaking away from Digital Underground; Boots Riley and the Coup and Michael Franti’s Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were trying to capture Public Enemy’s lightning in the West Coast’s bottle, while Dru Down planted the seeds of cloud rap.

That era spawned a litany of remarkable records, but few with as much ageless appeal as Souls of Mischief’s ’93 ‘til Infinity, a masterwork of urbane jazz clips, labyrinthine rhyme patterns and durable references. As the record approaches its 20 th anniversary this September, it’s most often called a slept-on classic, but the group’s stimulus in its creation was simple.

“Just to be different than everybody. Not just the lyrical rappers or the ones with funk beats, but we said, ‘Lets try to make something different than everything,’” said the Souls’ Tajai in the midst of touring around the record’s milestone. “Jive was forward-thinking when they signed us. They had us, E-40 and Too Short, so they knew something was good in the Bay. That’s still the strategy: don’t do what everybody else is doing.”

Meanwhile, what at least a noteworthy cross section of current hip-hop seems to be doing is acknowledging the Souls’ influence. Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ released a single entitled “95 Til Infinity” in late June that nods to the Souls’ marathon rhyme schemes, while Mac Miller is calling his forthcoming collaborative mixtape with DJ Jazzy Jeff ’92 ‘til Infinity, and is ostensibly pointed at the same type of vinyl hound that latched onto the Souls of Mischief’s debut 20 years ago.

Yet the strategy of not doing what everyone else is doing remains their best play. The Souls of Mischief have a considerable presence on The Kitchen, the epic comeback record from Hieroglyphics, the collective that they formed in the ’90s with Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Casual, that dropped unexpectedly on Tuesday. The next Souls of Mischief-proper release, however, will be produced by virtuosic arranger Adrian Younge, the man behind Ghostface Killah’s April release Twelve Reasons to Die and only the second in which the group reaches outside of the group for a producer. Maybe shockingly for fans of their sampling, it will also eschew the obscure jazz-based beats that have been a staple of their previous five records.

“We worked with Prince Paul on our last record and it was a great experience having someone else with a respectable voice. After all the years of doing music together, it’s refreshing to present yourself with new challenges and new ways to create music,” said the Souls’ A-Plus. “Once Adrian came into the picture, it was a no-brainer. We’re always trying to do something different, something original and he kind of personifies that. His mind works very similar to Souls of Mischief, almost like the fifth soul. It’s healthy competition and he’s doing his thing with the beats, so we have to come with the lyrics.”

There Is Only Now will arrive in September, precisely 20 years after their debut, at the crest of momentum created by a lengthy tour built around ’93 ‘til Infinity and their surprise release with the Hiero crew. It’s a concept album that calls back to the debut’s second track “Live and Let Live,” a manifesto on the group’s reconciliation of mortality amidst the incredibly violent Oakland surroundings in which they were raised. Like “Live and Let Live,” it starts with a near-death experience, a real-life experience extrapolated into a full-length plot, that diverges into that kind of album that Younge dubbed “ridable” — one that can be played through repeatedly on a long car ride — in his “Crate Diggers” webisode from earlier this year.

“We wanted to make that album so that there’s not even close to a track you want to fast forward through. Listening to what we have, humbly speaking is pretty incredible,” said A-Plus. “He’s helped us create this world to keep the listener involved the whole time and usually following the story can be a challenge, but I feel like we nailed it.”

Souls of Mischief will perform at Ziggy’s on Wednesday.